Hailed as the biggest, most controversial genetics breakthrough since the cloning of Dolly the sheep, Dr. Craig Venter - the scientist who led the private-sector race to map the human genome - says his research team has figured out which genes provide the bare essentials for life. Now he wants the commercial rights to their use.
Venter plans to cobble together synthetic versions of these genes to create the world's first artificial living being, a bacterium called mycoplasma laboratorium that could then be programmed to convert sunlight into eco-friendly fuels such as hydrogen or ethanol.
The plan represents a quantum leap in genetics, from reading the DNA of living organisms, to writing it from scratch.
"This is a biological bombshell," warns Pat Mooney of the Ottawa-based Erosion, Technology and Concentration Group, a biotechnology watchdog that discovered the patent application this week.
Once you've created an artificial bacterium, "it becomes a small step to do the same for a plant, an animal and eventually even a human being," said Jim Thomas, also with the ETC Group.
"Society hasn't even discussed what the environmental and ethical implications are when humans create novel life-forms the planet has never seen before," Mooney said, let alone the ethics of allowing a company to gain sole control over the set of genes that constitute the basic building blocks of life, he added.
Venter has filed patent applications in the U.S. and at the World Intellectual Property Organization, an international body that issues patents for more than 100 countries, including Canada.
The ETC Group has appealed to the patent authorities to turn down the applications.
Venter's research team would manufacture the essential genes, insert them into a "ghost" cell and add selected artificial genes.
Venter says the main goal would be to produce hydrogen and ethanol, which "could save an estimated $20 billion per year on fuel costs over the next 50 years [and] decrease greenhouse emissions by 1.7 billion tons per year," the firm says on its website.
But Mooney said a programmable life form could "just as easily be used to make a bio-weapon."
While some in the emerging field of synthetic biology say people shouldn't let fear kill a potentially revolutionary technology, Mooney said such fears are not far-fetched considering Venter's organism is almost certain to get released into the environment with untold consequences.
"You can't count on containing a living organism in the lab. It will always get out," he said.
Mooney points to the case of StarLink corn, a genetically engineered crop that was intended only for livestock because it contained a protein considered unsafe for humans. It escaped into the corn supply in 2000, costing the industry more than $600 million in recalls.
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